Humanitarian Assistance:

Protecting Refugee Women and Girls Remains a Significant Challenge

GAO-03-663: Published: May 23, 2003. Publicly Released: May 23, 2003.

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Women and children refugees, who comprise 80 percent of the estimated 12 million refugees worldwide, are among the world's most vulnerable populations. They are subject to gender-based violence, including physical harm, rape, and unequal access to humanitarian assistance. GAO was asked to (1) assess efforts by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to protect refugees, especially with regard to women and girls; (2) determine what steps U.N. and international organizations have taken to prevent sexual exploitation of refugee women by humanitarian workers; and (3) describe U.S. government efforts to support adequate protection for vulnerable populations.

UNHCR and international organizations have developed guidelines, best practices, and other measures to improve protection of refugee women and girls. However, weaknesses in its staffing process and training limit the effectiveness of these measures. UNHCR lacks a formal strategic workforce plan that links the organization's objectives, resources, and staffing; its staff assignment and rotation policies have resulted in extended vacancies at key protection posts; and it provides little practical training for most UNHCR and implementing partner staff on protection concepts and techniques. UNHCR could also make better use of partnering arrangements with nongovernmental and international organizations to boost its protection capacity. In response to allegations in 2001 of sexual abuse and exploitation of women and girl refugees by relief workers and peacekeepers, the U.N. and other international organizations introduced policies and procedures to address the problem, such as codes of conduct and mechanisms to report and act on new allegations of abuse of power. While these efforts have raised awareness among workers in refugee settings, international organizations face continuing sexual exploitation of women by relief workers, and the issue remains a real and significant problem. The U.S. government, through the Department of State, supports the protection of refugees and other vulnerable populations primarily through its funding to international organizations. It is also a strong advocate at the United Nations, within international organizations, and at the country level to increase protection efforts.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: The Secretary of State should work with other U.N. member states to encourage the development of protection partnering arrangements between and among U.N. agencies and nongovernmental organizations to better utilize and leverage program and staff resources currently operating with vulnerable populations.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In May 2003, GAO recommended (Humanitarian Assistance: Protecting Refugee Women and Girls Remains a Significant Challenge, May 2003, GAO-03-663) that the Secretary of State work with other U.N. member states to encourage the development of protection partnering arrangements. In response, the Department of State continued to fund, through the International Rescue Committee, the Protection Surge Capacity Project that provides the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) with personnel to fill protection staffing gaps; the Department also pressed UNHCR to institutionalize this arrangement in 2004. In 2004, UNHCR included the Surge project in its annual budget under a category of the Operational Reserve; the project will be included in the main part of the annual budget--and thus institutionalized--in 2005. In addition, UNHCR has partnered with the Norwegian Refugee Council to develop a camp management toolkit.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of State should work with other U.N. member states to expand training opportunities so that international and nongovernmental staff in positions of contact with refugee populations are fully versed in protection policies and practical protection techniques.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In May 2003, GAO recommended (Humanitarian Assistance: Protecting Refugee Women and Girls Remains a Significant Challenge, May 2003, GAO-03-663) that the Secretary of State work with other U.N. member states to expand protection training opportunities for international and nongovernmental staff. In response, the Department of State provided funding for the "Protection Reach-Out" project to provide protection training for non-government organization (NGO) and U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) implementing partners. In 2004, UNHCR also began a pilot training program, called the Protection Learning Programme for UNHCR Partners, aimed primarily at NGOs working closely with UNHCR in the field.

    Recommendation: To strengthen the international responsse to the protection needs of refugees, especially women and girls, the Secretary of State should work with member states to fundamentally reform UNHCR's staffing system so that it can work more effectively fulfill its core protection mandate. Measures to accomplish this could include developing a staff assignment and rotation system that ensures difficult and chronically vacant duty stations are filled with employees with the requisite skills and experience, especially in Africa.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In May 2003, GAO recommended (Humanitarian Assistance: Protecting Refugee Women and Girls Remains a Significant Challenge, May 2003, GAO-03-663) that the Secretary of State work with other member states to reform the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) staffing system, including developing a rotation policy to fill hardship posts. In response, the relevant Deputy Assistant Secretary of State met with the High Commissioner and State officials worked with other member states on improving UNHCR's human resources management and rotation policy. In August 2003, UNHCR's Board of Auditors reported that the organization had implemented a new rotation policy.

    Recommendation: To strengthen the international response to the protection needs of refugees, especially women and girls, the Secretary of State should work with member states to fundamentally reform UNHCR's staffing system so that it can more effectively fulfill its core protection mandate. Measures to accomplish this could include creating a strategic workforce plan that systematically determines priority staff positions worldwide, based on the relative protection needs of refugees and realistic assumptions of available resources.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In July 2007, according to a State Department official, the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) provided UNHCR with $160,500 to implement a project that UNHCR developed to hire consultants to conduct a comprehensive review and analysis of UNHCR's protection staffing and develop a protection workforce strategy. The project will conduct an analysis of UNHCR's protection workforce requirements (where staff are needed), help determine priority needs, including benchmarks and indicators, and develop a protection workforce strategy that can be fed into UNHCR's larger workforce strategy that is part of the organization's overall workforce reforms. Part of the analysis will focus on the different protection needs of various locations; for example, the protection staff in the UK would focus on legal protections, while protection staff in Kenya would cover both legal and physical protection issues. A PRM official expects the report to be completed around February 2008, which UNHCR will post on its website. UNHCR also plans to hold a workshop with stakeholders to develop plans to implement the protection workforce strategy that results from the project.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of State should work with other U.N. member states to ensure continued focus on efforts to prevent sexual exploitation of refugee women and girls by making the issue of exploitation an annual agenda item at refugee policy forums, including the U.N.'s Inter-Agency Standing Committee and UNHCR's Executive Committee meetings.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In May 2003, GAO recommended (Humanitarian Assistance: Protecting Refugee Women and Girls Remains a Significant Challenge, May 2003, GAO-03-663) that the Secretary of State work with other U.N. member states to ensure that the prevention of sexual exploitation of refugee women and girls is a continued focus at refugee policy forums. State Department has pressed for updates on the prevention of gender-based violence at all Standing Committee and ExCom meetings. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has included discussions on the prevention of sexual exploitation of refugee women and girls at ExCom and the Standing Committee meetings, as well as in the organization's annual Note on International Protection.

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